WASHINGTON – U.S. mobility for young adults has fallen to the lowest level in more than 50 years as cash-strapped 20-somethings shun home-buying and refrain from major moves in a weak job market.
The new 2013 figures from the Census Bureau, which reversed earlier signs of recovery, underscore the impact of the sluggish economy on young people, many of them college graduates, whom demographers sometimes refer to as "Generation Wait."
Burdened with college debt or toiling in low-wage jobs, they are delaying careers, marriage and having children. Waiting anxiously for their lucky break, they are staying put and doubling up with roommates or living with Mom and Dad, unable to make long-term plans or commit to buying a home – let alone pay a mortgage.
Many understood after the 2007-2009 recession that times would be tough. But few say they expected to be in economic limbo more than four years later.
"I'm constantly looking for other jobs," says Jeremy Bills, 27, of Nashville, Tenn., who graduated from Vanderbilt University in May 2011 with a master's degree in human and organizational development. Originally from Tampa, Fla., Bills has stayed put in his college town in hopes of finding a job in management consulting or human resources. Instead, he has mostly found odd jobs like pulling weeds and dog-sitting.
Bills says he pursued a master's degree to bolster his credentials after getting his college diploma in 2008, shortly before the financial meltdown. Instead, he finds himself still struggling financially and worrying that the skills he learned in school – where he incurred $20,000 in student loan debt – are "kind of atrophying right now."
"It's not like riding a bicycle. You can't just jump into a career position so many years after training," said Bills, who now works at a nonprofit organization making $12 an hour and is looking for a second job.
Among adults ages 25-29, just 4.9 million, or 23.3 percent, moved in the 12 months ending March 2013. That's down from 24.6 percent in the same period the year before. It was the lowest level since at least 1963. The peak of 36.7 percent came in 1965, during the nation's youth counterculture movement.
The past year's decline in migration came after a modest increase from 2011 to 2012, a sign that young adults remain tentative about testing the job market in other cities.
By metropolitan area, Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, and Houston were among the top gainers in young adults, reflecting stronger local economies. Among college graduates 25 and older, Denver and Washington, D.C., topped the list of destinations.
Demographers say the delays in traditional markers of adulthood – full-time careers and homeownership – may prove to be longer-lasting.
Roughly 1 in 5 young adults ages 25 to 34 is now disconnected from work and school.
"Young adulthood has grown much more complex and protracted, with a huge number struggling to reach financial independence," said Mark Mather, an associate vice president at the private Population Reference Bureau. "Many will get there, but at much later ages than we've seen in the past. More and more we're seeing many young adults routinely wait until their 30s to leave the parental nest."
The overall decline in migration among young adults is being driven largely by a drop in local moves within a county, which fell to the lowest level on record. Out-of-state moves also fell, from 3.8 percent in 2012 to 3.4 percent, but remained higher than a 2010 low of 3.2 percent.
Young adults typically make long-distance moves to seek a new career, while those who make local moves often do so when buying a home.
While homeownership across all age groups fell by 3 percentage points to 65 percent from 2007 to 2012, the drop-off among adults 25-29 was much larger – more than 6 percentage points, from 40.6 percent to 34.3 percent. That reflects in part tighter lines of credit after the 2006 housing bust. Declines in homeownership for those ages 40 and older over in that five-year period were more modest.
The District of Columbia, with its high share of young adults, had the lowest homeownership rate across all age groups at 41.6 percent, followed by New York at 53.9 percent. West Virginia had the highest homeownership rate at 72.9 percent.
In terms of births, the birth rate for all women of childbearing age – 63 births per 1,000 women – was essentially flat in 2012 from the year before.
Meanwhile, overall migration among adults 55 and older held steady at 4.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, up from a low of 4 percent in 2011. Metro areas with the biggest gains included Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver and several in Florida. Many cities in the Northeast, Midwest and coastal areas posted losses.
"The post-recession period has given a bigger boost to seniors than to young adults in their willingness to try out new places for retirement," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who analyzed the figures. "Many young adults, especially those without college degrees, are still stuck in place."
"For them, low mobility might be more than a temporary lull and could turn into the 'new normal.'"
The wait continues for Eric Hall, 30, of Decatur, Ga. After picking up a master's degree in public health in 2008, Hall moved from California to the Atlanta suburb with the plan of living with his parents for about six months.
Five years later, after struggling to find work in his field and switching his career path last year from health management to teaching kindergarten, Hall has opted to remain at his parents' home until he can pay off more debt. He is now studying to earn a doctorate in education, amassing college debt of more than $110,000.
"It's a bit restraining after going away to college two times, but I'm saving and my mom's been very understanding," said Hall, who is optimistic he'll soon be financially stable enough to live on his own. "Maybe next summer."
Associated Press writer Travis Loller in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.